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BATTLE AND THE RUINS
DANIEL G. BRLMTON, M. D., LL. D., D.Sc.
AMERICAN ARCHAEOLOGY AND LINGUISTICS IN THE UNIVERSITY
[REHRINTED FROM THE AMERICAN ANTIQUARIAN. SEPTEMBER. 1896 1
BATTLE AND THE RUINS
DANIEL G. BRINTON, M. D., LL. D., D.Sc.
AMERICAN ARCHAEOLOGY AND LINGUISTICS IN THE UNIVERSITY
[REPRINTED FROM THE AMERICAN ANTIQUARIAN, SEPTEMBER, 1896]
Digitized by the Internet Archive
in 2008 with funding from
THE BATTLE AND THE RUINS OF CINTLA.
By Daniel G. Brinton, M. D.
The first battle on the American continent in which horses
were used was that of Cintla in Tabasco, March, 15 19, the
European troops being under the leadership of Hernando
This fact attaches something more than an ordinary historic
interest to the engagement, at least enough to make it desirable
to ascertain its precise locality and its proper name. Both of
these are in doubt, as well as the ethnic stock to which the
native tribe belonged which opposed the Spanish soldiery on
the occasion. I propose to submit these questions to a'^re-
examination, and also to describe from unpublished material
the ruins which, — as I believe — , mark the spot of this first im-
portant encounter of the two races on American soil.
The engagement itself has been described by all the his-
torians of Cortes' famous conquest of Mexico, as it was the first
brilliant incident of that adventure. We have at least four
accounts of it from participants. One prepared under the eye
of Cortes himself, one by the anonymous historian of his expe
dition, a third by Cortes' companion-in-arms, the redoubtable
Bernal Diaz del Castillo, and a fourth by Andres de Tapia. ^
The most satisfactory narrative, however, is given by the
chaplain of Cortes, Francisco de Gomara, and I shall briefly
rehearse his story, adding a few points from other contemporary
Cortes with his armada cast anchor at the mouth of the River
Grijalva in March, 15 19. The current being strong and the bar
shallow, he with about eighty men proceeded in boats up the
river for about two miles, when they descried on the bank a
large Indian village. It was surrounded with a wooden pali-
sade, having turrets and loopholes from which to hurl stones
1 The authorities are :
Carta de la Justicia de la Rica Villa de la Vera Cruz, July lo, 1519. This is sometimes re-
ferred to as Cortes' first letter.
Bernal Diaz del Castillo. Historia de la Conquista de la Nueva Espana.
Andres de Tapia. kelacion Sobre la Conqttista de la Nueva Espana.
Relacton Anonyma de la Conquista de la Nueva Espatia.
2 Francisco Lopez de Gomara, Conquista de Mexico. I follow the Madrid edition of
and darts. The houses within were built of tiles laid in mortar,
or of sun-dried brick (adobes), and were roofed with straw or
split trees. The chief temple had spacious rooms, and its de-
pendences surrounded a court yard.
The interpreter Aguilar, a Spaniard who had lived with the
Mayas in Yucatan, could readily speak the tongue of the vil-
lage, which was therefore a Mayan dialect. The natives told
him that the town was named Potonchan, which Aguilar trans-
lated " the place that smells or stinks," an etymology probably
correct in a general way.
The natives were distrustful, and opposed the landing of
the Europeans rather with words and gestures than with blows.
Their warriors approached Cortes in large boats, called in their
tongue taJmciip, and refused him permission to land.
After some parleying, Cortes withdrew to an island in the
river near by, and as night drew on, he sent to the ships for re-
inforcements, and despatched some of the troops to look for a
ford from the island to the mainland ; which they easily found.
The next morning he landed some of his men by the boats,
and attacked the village on the water side, while another de-
tachment crossed the ford and making a circuit assaulted it in
the rear. The Indians were prepared, having sent their women
and children away. They were in number about four hundred,
and made at first a brisk resistance, but being surprised by the
rear assault, soon fled in dismay. No Spaniard was killed,
though many were wounded.
Cortes established himself in the village and landed most of
his troops and ten out of his thirteen horses. When his men
were rested and the injured had had their wounds dressed with
fat taken from dead Indians^ (!) he sent out three detach-
ments on foot to reconnoitre.
After marching a distance which is not stated, but which
could not have been many miles, they came to an extensive
plain covered with maize fields, temples and houses. This was
Cintla. There were many warriors gathered there, and after a
sharp skirmish the Spaniards fell back.
Having thus learned the ground, Cortes prepared for a decis-
ive battle, as also did the natives. The latter gathered at
Cintla in five divisions of eight thousand men each, as the chron-
Cortes had about five hundred men including some Cuban
Indians. The main detachment proceeded on foot by the high
road, the cavalry along a path in the woods, and another de-
tachment by a third route. The country was swampy and cut
with canals, offering serious obstacles to the horses. It was
not until the infantry had been for some time closely engaged
with the enemy on the plain of Cintla, and rather severely
handled, that the cavalry reached the spot. Their appearance,
together with the noise and fatal effect of the musketry, soon
I This delectable surgical item is added by Captain Bernal Diaz.
struck terror to the hearts of the natives — their ranks broke
and they fled. Gomara estimates that there were about three
hundred of them killed, which is likely enough ; while Bishop
De las Casas puts the slain at thirty thousand ! '
Such was the battle of Cintla. It broke the spirits of the
natives, and soon their chieftain, named Tabasco, from whom
the river and the province were later called, came in, and offered
his submission. Cortes took possession of the land in the name
of the King of Spain, and erected a large cross in the chief
temple of Potonchan. He remained there several days longer
before proceeding on his voyage.
TJie Name Cintla. — Of the contemporary authorities, only two
give the name of the place at or near which the battle was
One of these is Bernal Diaz, who writes it twice, spelling it
both times Cintia. ' The other is Gomara, who gives Cintla, the
form which I believe to be correct. Through following some
less reliable authorities a number of writers, among them Pres-
cott and his editor Mr. J. F. Kirk, Orozco y Berra, etc., and
their copyists, have deformed this word into Cetitla.
The most obvious derivation of Cintla is from the NahuatI
language, in which Cintla means a dried ear of maize ; Cintlan^
a place where dried ears are, a cornfield- Most of the places oT&tul^
in Tabasco became known to the Spaniards under their NahuatI
appellatives through interpreters in that tongue, and because
most of the territory had been subjected to the powerful sway
of the Montezumas.
Still, Cintla may also be a Mayan word. It may be a nominal
form from the verb tzen-tah, and would then have the significa-
tion, ''a built-up place," or one well stocked with provisions;
or, it may be a patronymic from the Tzentals, the tribe which
occupied this region at the time, as I shall proceed to show.
The Native Tribe. — There is no question -b^t that the native
tribe which took part in this combat belonged to the Mayan
stock. All the accounts agree that Aguilar, the Spaniard whom
Cortes found in Yucatan as a captive, and who had learned to-
speak the Mayan tongue, communicated with the natives with-
out dif^culty. This is conclusive as to their ethnic position.
Further evidence, if needed, is offered by the native names
and words preserved in the accounts. The term for their large
canoes, tahuciip, is from the Maya talial, to swim, and kop^ that
which is hollow, or hollowed out. The name potonchan, Aguilar
translated as, " the place that stinks" (lugar que hiede). He
evidently understood it as derived from the Maya verb tunhal^
to stink, with the intensive prefix/^/ (which is not unusual in
the tongue, as pot-hokan, very evident, etc.). The historian
Herrera, on some authority not known to me, further explains
1 Historia de las Indias. Lib. XIV.
2 I have consulted both the original edition (1632) and the Madrid reprint of 1852. It is-
thus spelled in both, though Dr. Jourdanet, in his excellent French translation (Paris, i877>
this term as one of contempt applied to the people there,
meaning rude and barbarous ; ' as we should say, using the same
Tabasco is said by Bernal Diaz to have been the name of the
principal chief of the eight provinces or tribes, who together
opposed the Spaniards. For this reason I would reject the
derivation from the Nahuatl, proposed by Rovirosa, — tlalli,
earth, paltic, wet or swampy, co, in," — however appropriate it
would be geographically ; and also that from the Maya, tazcoob,
" deceived," referring to the deceptions practiced on the
Spaniards, — which is defended by Orozco y Berra^ ; and I
should accept that which I find suggested by Dr. Berendt in his
manuscript work on Mayan geographical names. He reads
Tabasco as a slightly corrupt form of the Maya T ah-naxac-coh,
" our (or the) master of the eight lions," referring to the eight
districts or gentes of the tribe. This is significant and appro-
priate, the jaguar, the American lion, being a very common
emblem in the ruins of Cintla.
The branch of the Mayan stock which occupied the litoral of
the province of Tabasco at that time were those later known as
the Tzentals (otherwise spelled Zendal or Tzeltal). By some
writers they have been called the Chontals of Tobasco, chontal^
as is well known, being merely a common noun in Nahuatl to
express foreigners or barbarians. Their identity with the
modern Tzentals of Chiapas has been established by the re-
searches of Dr. Berendt.
The Tzental is a dialect closely akin to pure Maya, though
it was believed by Dr. Berendt to present nearer relations than
the Maya proper to the dialect of the Huastecas, a segregated
idiom of the Mayan family, spoken near Tampico.
The Locality. — Until M. Desire Charnay brought out the re-
sults of the Lorillard expedition in his handsome work, "The
Ancient Cities of the New World," * no one, so far as I know,
had expressed any doubt that Cintla was situated near the
mouth of the great river, the Rio de Tabasco, formed by the
confluence of the Usumacinta and the Rio de Grijalva, and
emptying into the bay of Campeche, i8° 35', north latitude.
M. Charnay did not visit the ruins of Cintla nor the site of
Potonchan, which I am about to describe ; but he did make an
examination of the ruins of Comalcalco, about thirty miles west
of Cintla ; and as they are of notable magnitude, he proceeds
to argue that they represent the ancient Cintla, of the victory
The arguments on which he founds this contention may be
briefly stated. They are that the accounts refer to two
entrances to the river (^dos bocas) while the Tabasco has but one ;
1 Herrera, Historia de las Indias Occidentales. Dec. Ill, lib. vii, cap. iii.
2 Jose N. Rovirosa, Nombres Geographicos de Tabasco, (Mexico, 1888).
3 Orozco y Berra, Historia Antigua de Mexico, Tom. XIV, Lib. 1, cap. V.
4 1 use the French edition, Les Anciennes Villes du Nouveau Monde, pp. 159, 160
that the bar of Tabasco now admits vessels of 300 tons, whereas
Cortes speaks of it as too shallow for his caravels ; that Herrera
says Cortes retired to a small island, whereas there is none in
the Rio de Tabasco ; that Herrera further speaks of a ford by
which the soldiers of Cortes "crossed the river," which would
have been impossible in the Tabasco ; and finally that the
same writer mentions cacao plantations, though at present none
exist near Frontera. For these reasons he thinks both Grijalva
and Cortes entered the embouchure now known as the Barra
de Dos Bocas, some twenty-five miles west of the mouth of the
Rio de Tabasco.
A slight examination dissipates these objections. Both Gri-
jalva and Cortes note the powerful current of the Rio de Tab-
asco, carrying fresh water six miles out to sea, as is observed
to-day,' and this is not in the least applicable to the insignifi-
cant stream flowing out of the Dos Bocas. M. Charnay was
misinformed when he stated there is no island at the mouth of
the Rio de Tabasco. There are in fact two, one, long and nar-
row, known as the Isla de Grijalva, the other quite small, close
to the plantation of Dolores (see the map). The latter was
probably that to which Cortes retired. None of the accounts
say that the soldiers " forded the river," but only the short dis-
tance between the island and the mainland. These islands
give to the entrance of the river the appearance of two ehi-
bouchures or mouths. The depth of the bar varies of course
with the seasons and with the tides.
But what is conclusive is that in 1525 the Spaniards founded
the city Nuestra Sefiora de la Victoria, on the site of Poton-
chan. In 1646, it had a cura and a vicar, and counted 2000
parishioners, and the abundance of its cacao harvest is espe-
cially noted.* At some later day it was attacked and destroyed
by filibusters ; but the remains of the churelT and the cemetery
are still visible at Dolores, and pilgrimages are yet made to
them on certain holy days by the faithful of the parish of Fron-
tera, on the opposite shore. This record places the scene of
the conflict beyond all doubt.
Condition of the Natives. — The various accounts agree in de-
scribing the province as highly cultivated and thickly settled.
Maize and cacao were the principal crops. Temples and edi-
fices are repeatedly referred to. A few years afterwards (1524)
Cortes traversed Tabasco some miles inland, and has left a de-
scription of its industries. The people were active merchants,
and the list of their commodities which he gives includes cacao,
maize, cotton, dye-stuffs, feathers, salt, wax, resins, paints, gum
copal, pottery, beads, shells, precious stones, woven stuffs and
gold of low alloy. The richer citizens had numerous wives and
female slaves, which accounted for the rapid increase in popu-
1 Requena says tha current from the river is visible " from ten to twelve leagues from the
shore in every season and in high water much further." Pedro Requena, informe sobre
Tabasco, p. 52 (S. Juan Bantista, 1S47, Imprenta del Gobierno).
2 These facts are given in the Memoria of Diaz de la Calle, printed at Madrid, 1646, ex-
tracts from which 1 hnd in Dr. Berendt's manuscripts.
lation.' The chronicler Gomara furnished a long list of the
native articles which Grijalva brought back in 15 19 from Poton-
chan and the neighboring coast. They reveal a high degree of
artistic culture, and leave no doubt but that the tribes of the
vicinity were as developed in the arts as any in America.
Ruined Cities. — Writing about 1875, M^- ^' ^- Bancroft says :
*'On the immediate coast (of Tabasco) some large towns and
temples were seen by the early voyagers ; but I have no infor-
mation that relics of any kind have been discovered in modern
In fact, although it is doubtful if there are any ruins directly
on the coast, there are many but a short distance inland.
Those at Comalcacalco have been figured and described by M.
Charnay, and his work is so well known that a reference to it
At the locality called Pedrito, about fifteen miles from the
mouth of the Tabasco, there are many mounds, embankments,
piles of pottery and other signs of an ancient town. Among
the relics is a large circular stone, "like a round table," with
figures in relief engraved on its sides, and with holes drilled in
its surface, in which pegs or wooden nails are said to have been
fitted.^ About ten miles north of this spot is another group of
mounds on the left bank of the Rio de San Pablo y San Pedro.
Doubtless many others exist unknown in the dense forests.
TJie Ruins of Cintla. — The ruins of Cintla were visited and
surveyed by the late Dr. C. H. Berendt in March and April,
1869, and, so far as I know, neither before nor since have they
been seen by any archaeologist. Nor can I learn that Dr.
Berendt ever published the results of his researches. The only
reference I can find to them in any of his published writings is
in a paper which he read, July loth, 1876, before the American
Geographical Society, and which was published in its Bulletin,
No. 2, for that year. The title of this address was, " Remarks
on the Centers of Ancient Civilization in Central America and
their Geographical Distribution." He certainly prepared a
much more extended paper especially on Cintla, with illustra-
tions and maps, fragments of which I have found among the
documents left at his death ; but if published, I have been un-
able to trace it. Nor can I discover what became of the
considerable archaeological collection which he made at Cintla
and brought away with him, a memorandum about which is
among his papers.
The passage in his address before the Geographical Society
touching on Cintla is as follows :
"It was by mere chance that in the year 1869 I discovered
the site of ancient Cintla, buried in the thick and fever-haunted
forests of the marshy coast, and unknown until then to the
Indians themselves. In the course of the excavations which I
I Cortes' description is given in his " fourth letter." His route is extremely difficult to
2 The Native Races of the Pacific States, Vol. IV, p. 287.
3 MSS, Notes of Dr. C. H. Berendt.
caused to be made, antiquities of a curious and interesting
character were laid bare.
" Prominent among these ruins, and presenting a peculiar
feature of workmanship, are the so-called teocallis, or mounds,
which here are built of earth, and covered at the top and on the
sides with a thick layer of mortar in imitation of stone work.
On one of these mounds I found not only the sides and the
platform, but even two flights of stairs, constructed of the same
apparently fragile but yet enduring material. One of the latter
was perfectly well preserved. I likewise saw clay figures of
animals covered with a similar coating of mortar or plaster,
thus imitating sculptured stone and retaining traces of having
been painted in various colors.
"^ay df Gampeche.
Fig-. I. — Map of the Ruins of Cintla.
"The reason for this singular use of cement probably is that
in the alluvial soil of this coast, no stones occur within a dis-
tance of fifty miles and more from the sea shore ; stone imple-
ments, such as axes, chisels, grinding stones, obsidian flakes,
etc., which are occasionally found, can have been introduced
solely by trade. The pottery and the idols made of terracotta
show a high degree of perfection.
" Regarding the period down to which such earthenware was
made, a broken vase disinterred from one of the mounds in my
presence may give a clue. Its two handles represent Spaniards,
with their European features, beard, Catalonian cap, dindpolainas,
There is also among his papers the commencement of an
address or essay upon these ruins, written in Spanish, and this,
when completed, may have been printed in some Mexican peri-
odical. I translate from it the following passage, the remainder
having been lost :
" Having learned that in the forests of the coast between the
hurras of Chiltepec and Grijalva various mounds, idols and
other remains of an earlier population had been discovered, I
proceeded to that part of the country called Del Cajeie, and
devoted six weeks to its exploration. I soon found numerous
mounds and embankments from which the present inhabitants
had gathered fragments of idols and milling stones of a form
unknown now in the vicinity.
" It very soon became apparent that these mounds were not
such as those isolated ones which are found in various parts of
this country, but were arranged in groups surrounding open
spaces, plazas, and forming streets, extending over an area three
leagues in length by one in breadth.
Fig. 2. — The Great Temple. Fig. 3. — Cross Section of Fig. 2, B.
" Not a gingle tradition, not a single native name survives to
cast any light upon these ruins. The whole of this coast was
depopulated m the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries owing
to the slave-hunting incursions of the filibusters and man-
hunters. The Indians who are now found in the neighborhood
have removed there from the interior since the beginning of
the present century, and are absolutely ignorant of the origin
or builders of this city, hidden in the tropical forest."
The locality referred to as Del Cajete was a settlement (ran-
cheria) of Indians, now better known as San Jose de la Bellota,
on a large pond into which drains the Rio de la Bellota. It
was founded in 1815 by a cura who brought the Indians there ,.
from the other side of the river, back of Frontera. C^^XtTli
The general position of the ruins will be seen from the above
map. It is drawn to the scale of the Mexican league, which
contains 5000 yards (varas) each 83S mm. One league is there-
fore approximately two and three quarters of our miles. No
ruins or mounds were located immediately on or near the coast.
Almost a continuous line of mounds, embankments and
heaps of debris extends from near Bellota for about nine miles
in a general west-south-west direction over a plain which is now
densely covered by a tropical forest.
Dr. Berendt did not attempt to survey but a few of these
numerous monuments. The plan of one of the largest, called
by the natives El Cuyo Grande^ "The Great Temple," is shown
in the following, figure 2.
The principal mound 13 is terraced about half way up and
was 82 feet in height. A cross section of it is shown in I'^ig. 3,
A series of constructions is connected with this, the whole
running in a direction east-north-east to west-south-west.
They consist of a rectangular embankment six to eight feet
high, Fig. 2, A ; an isolated circular mound, D ; and two small
mounds at the eastern corilers of the great mound, from which
parallel embankments, E, extend easterly, inclosing an open
space, which at the extremity is terminated by a long low
mound, C. The total distance from A to C is 1140 feet.
The great mound and most of the others in the vicinity are
faced with mortar made of sand and lime from burnt oyster
shells. On one or both sides are flights of steps which lead up
to the summit. These are constructed of layers of mortar,
tiles and hard-pounded earth, distributed in the manner repre-
sented in Fig. 4.
^ — rtJTrlar
Fig. 4. — Construction of Stairways.
Fig. 5. — Los Ciiyos de la Canada.
The earth is either black or red, and is mixed with sand from
the coast to give it consistency. The tiles or bricks are rec-
tangular in shape, well made and regular in outline, and laid
one against another as in a pavement.
Another group is called Los Cuyos de la Canada, Fig. 5. It
consists of two mounds on a low platform, adjoining each
other. The larger, a, is twenty feet in height, the lower, b,
about fifteen feet. Their sides are oriented exactly to the true
north. A section is shown in Fig. 5, g. Two small oblong
mounds, c and d, about six feet high, and a square altar-like
heap, / appear to be in relation to the group. Numerous
pieces of mortar and terra cotta occur in the vicinity, and 1500
feet directly west there is a large mound of moderate height.
Almost anywhere in the area of this ancient city, the soil
abounds in fragments of mortar, pottery and images of earthen-
ware. Very frequently the latter are represented seated on a
bell-shaped support, apparently that they might be stij.ad _up
upon a flat surface. Two of these are shown from Dr. Berendt's
drawings in Figs. 6 and 7. The handles of utensils were often
decorated in fantastic forms as that shown in Fig. 8.
Fi^. b— Image ivitli
tom and Handle.
Ftg. 7. — Image of a
Warrior on Bell-
. S. — Decorated
An abundance of nictates, or corn-stones, of a shape not now
usual in the neighborhood were exhibited. Some of these were
quite graceful, having several feet and highly ornamented.
The vases of pottery were occasionally noteworthy for their
symmetry and beauty, as that shown in Fig. 9.
Fig. Q.—Jar of Pottery.
At the foot of the stairways to the summit of the mounds on
each side were frequently the remains of tigers' heads, well
moulded in burnt clay.
Here and there the remains of wells were discovered, or of
excavations which apparently were intended for the purpose
of obtaining water.
Dr. Berendt mentions several tombs, but unfortunately does
not specify their location or construction. He states that they
usually contained several bodies, in a sitting posture, placed
side by side with their arms and ornaments.
No trace of metal whatever was discovered, neither copper
nor gold, which is rather unexpected, as the natives in the time
of Grijalva were acquainted with both these substances.
Such is the brief account I am able to give of these extensive
and interesting ruins from the fragmentary papers of their ex-
plorer. If any reader of these notes can inform this journal
of the disposition Dr. Berendt made of his collection and the
full memoranda of his surveys and excavations, the cause of
American archaeology will be further benefited.
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